The Shifters from Melbourne are a prolific lo-fi DIY band that put a post-modernist spin on punk. Gimmie interviewed vocalist-guitarist Miles Jansen and keyboardist-vocalist Louise Russell to chat about their 2020 releases Live In Gaul recorded from shows played in France, 7-inch Left Bereft/Australia and Open Vault a compilation of 26 unreleased studio material, early demos, live 4-track, live iPhone, covers and solo home demos. We also explore their musical discovery, touring Europe and a double LP in the works!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
MILES: I am a Musician from Melbourne, Australia. I lost my job in hospitality at the beginning of COVID and now studying programming and cybersecurity at VU.
LOU: I am a musician and a chef in Melbourne. I’m originally from Cairns. I’ve just finished my second year of primary education at La Trobe University and can’t wait to finish and get a real job!
How did you first get into music?
MILES: My Grandparents, parents and older brother all had a big musical influence on me growing up. My Grandparents always had Bach and Pachelbel blasting from a custom set of speakers in their house. Mum and Dad were kids of the ’60s, so a healthy dose of all the classics, including interesting additions like [Captain] Beefheart and Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’.
My brother Liege introduced me to stuff like Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep and Dr Octagon. My little ears did not really relate to what was being said, though I really dug how the music sounded. The loops and samples Wu-Tang use on 36 Chambers was what I liked most. They were young geniuses. Liege also had a good guitar-based musical influence on me through stuff like Sebadoh, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and then skateboarding. Skating for me, like so many others, was a major eye-opener for music. We would religiously watch skate videos that would have some really eclectic soundtracks, then dub the music and make mixtapes with skate noises in the background. Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was probably my biggest ‘lightbulb’ moment. Sometime after hearing that I started to meet musicians at local punk shows in Brisbane. There was a great little scene happening back then.
During that time, James Kritzler (White Hex, Slug Guts /author whom I lived and played in a band with at the time) gave me a CDR with The Fall’s ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’ on it! I’d never heard such an interesting use of language in ‘Punk’. I was mesmerized. As the late, great MES said himself, “real head music”. I was thereby sold and my love for them still trumps all of the fantastic music I’ve been made aware of since. The band with James was called ‘On/Oxx’. It was a strange concoction of sounds but it was through that I got into the Liars album ‘Drums Not Dead’, the drums on that record are really great and we were just kinda rhythmically ripping them off. It featured saxophone, which James called “skronking”, two drummers- ‘Butthole Surfers’ style and sometimes James would bang on bits of metal with contact mics attached. He is the very smart, charming and talented ringmaster of sorts. I pretty much did as I was told. It was a great first band to be in. We toured in Australia two or three times, released a 7” and an LP, then it suddenly all ended after the bass player Lachlan moved to NZ to join ‘Die!Die!Die!’.
LOU: I guess my initial introduction to music was playing the piano. My parents refurbished a 1901 upright piano they found at an antique store and I started learning on that at age 7. We lived in middle-of-nowhere Far North Queensland and I had some pretty weird piano teachers. One was obsessed with porcelain dolls and another used to take her false teeth out and put them on top of the piano before each lesson. I only learned classical pieces but always had an affinity for anything in a minor key. I loved gettin’ a bit spooky.
Mum and Dad listened to a lot of music from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Mum was a fan of Alanis Morissette and Savage Garden whilst Dad loved The Clash and Radiohead. I remember my dad having a copy of Beck’s album Odelay from 1994 and it was my favourite. That was probably my introduction to music that differed from Britney Spears and Spice Girls.
I had atrocious taste in music as an adolescent. I think the first cd I ever bought was the first Panic! At the Disco album. I listened to it on this old Walkman mum found at the tip shop. I knew every word and had a massive poster of them above my bed. Probably alongside Pete Wentz or something.
Like a lot of people from my generation, I went through that whole emo/scene/hardcore phase. In that progression, too. We didn’t get a lot of acts up in FNQ and when we did they were those all-ages hardcore shows. I think the first band I ever saw was either The Amity Affliction of Parkway Drive. If I hear them now I cringe. Things kinda just got darker as I got older and I started getting into black metal and death metal. I remember someone showing me Cradle of Filth’s album Midian in year 8 and I thought it was so sick. I’d never heard music like that before. An older kid at my school let me borrow his Children of Bodom in Stockholm 2006 DVD and I remember being hooked after that. Watching these dudes with long greasy hair and camo pants, one shredding a keyboard faced the wrong way around and another coking sausages over barrels of fire. Loved it.
My parents were always super supportive of all the music I listened to – even if they didn’t understand it – and I think that’s what’s allowed me to be so diverse in what I enjoy musically. Moving to Melbourne in 2011 opened my eyes to the punk scene. I had a lot of older friends from Queensland that were musicians down here and I would tag along to shows. I remember seeing a lot of Drunk Mums, Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Total Control. I don’t even know what kind of music I’d be into if I didn’t move to Melbourne and be immersed in this scene. Being in The Shifters has definitely influenced my taste in music a lot. These guys have introduced me to a lot of crazy and cool stuff.
What are some things that you are really good at?
MILES: The ability to sit for very long periods, playing ‘mini headbutts’ with my cat, ranting about bygone nonsense and pointing out all of the mistakes in war films.
Honestly, I don’t think I’m REALLY good at anything, maybe I’m just ‘good’ at a few things? and bad at most other things. If I had a barometer that measures how useful individual citizens were for the betterment of the current order, I would fare pretty poorly.
LOU: I wouldn’t say I’m ‘really’ good at anything. More than I’m adept at some things. I’m getting good at barbecuing. My partners calls me The Pitmaster. I like making things. I’ve been making little models out of balsa wood and I think I’m alright at that. For my teaching course I have to make a lot of arts and crafts type things so I’ve been getting pretty good at that. I’ve also become quite the gardener. It’s super cute watching plants grow and I find gardening therapeutic.
What influences culminated in creating The Shifters’ sound?
MILES: A mutual love for similar ideas and sounds. For example, Tristan has always loved the sound of live Velvet Underground recordings. I just messaged him to ask what age he got into them and he sent me this:” Dad showed me the Velvets when I was 8, and it ruined my life”. I feel we were on a similar musical path. The Shifters are avid fans of the weirder side of rock n roll and a cocktail of differing lifestyles, habits and dependencies.
LOU: I think a combination of everyone’s varying music tastes and history. I’ve always been attracted to weirder, askew types of music and I The Shifters’ music fits that mould. Tristan, Miles, Ryan and Chris all knew each other from yonks ago and share a lot of common interests. I was a newer recruit so I’m not sure if I have directly influenced our music but it’s definitely a mix of everyone’s eclectic tastes in music.
What contributes to your raw, jangly Shifters’ guitar tone that we love so much?
MILES: Listening to too much John Cale and Swell Maps, not really knowing how to play the thing is a good start, not using any pedals also helps. When I started getting into this kind of music as a teen I would look at photos or watch footage and like a sound and see where their hands were placed. All the guitarists thus far in the group have been self-taught (to my knowledge).
When I lived in London I played in a Cramps cover band and that was really handy in terms of learning classic chord progressions or shapes. They asked me to play with them as they knew I played a little guitar. They laughed so hard at me during first practice as I didn’t know an A from a C and still don’t really. I know I can play all the chords but I don’t know which ones I’m doing. Sorry Shifters.
LOU: Probably just always being a little bit out of tune. Somehow, no matter how much we tune up, someone, or all of us, is slightly out of key. Someone – usually me – forgets what notes to play and sometimes that can work in a dissonant way but a lot of the time it doesn’t. We don’t really use any pedals or effects and always try to strip it back a bit. I guess that’s what gives us that ‘jangly’ sound.
You recently released a Live In Gaul recording from shows you played in France early last year. It was recorded on Tristan’s iPhone; can you tell us a bit about your time in France? What was it like? What did you see? Did anything surprise you?
MILES: We went over not knowing what to expect. I knew that we had been selling a few records over there but had no idea the level of support we were to receive. There were people who knew the words to songs and were singing along at shows and asking for autographs every night. I was gobsmacked. I don’t remember signing anything in Australia. Moreover, it wasn’t like they were all Shifters fans, but they were just really psyched to see a somewhat ‘weird’ band from the other side of the world come to their small University town or Industrial city during the end of winter. We played to over 500 people in Paris. For a band like ours, that’s pretty wild. I think it’s the biggest crowd we have ever played to. I was shocked. We were rolling in cash from selling out of all of our merch and being paid pretty well for shows. Especially Paris. As far as tours go, we couldn’t have asked for more. I think I can speak for all of us here and say it was probably one of the best times we have ever had. There were fights and tears but that is to be expected existing as we were. We did not sleep much, we smoked a million cigarettes a day and drank ourselves silly partying with all of our new-found friends. We ate fantastic food. I love France and the French. I wish we could have done some more sightseeing but it doesn’t quite work like that. It’s the ultimate escapism. No work, no worries really, just get back into the van and do it all over again. We all got sick as dogs! Merci to our friends in France and Belgium. We shall be back whenever we are able.
LOU: Oh man, France was sick. We honestly thought we’d be playing to empty rooms but the crowds were amazing. We hadn’t experienced the calibre of hospitality in Australia compared to France. We were fed every night, given as much booze as we wanted, had parties thrown for us and made to feel comfortable in other people’s homes. We are eternally grateful for those that looked out for us. I knew the cheese and wine would be good but holy dooley, I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. Especially in Bordeaux *chef kiss*. Have to say, the croissants in Melbourne are way better though so I guess that surprised me. Sorry France.
We made some really rad friends and got to see some cool places. I spent my 25th birthday on a boat in Lyon which is an experience I will never forget. The show in Paris was incredible. We played on another boat on the Senne River to 500 people and that was mad.
I don’t know about the other guys but I got really good at sleeping in the van. I felt really bad for Chris though, who ended up driving us around throughout the UK leg of the tour. We’re all a bunch of babies that can’t drive except for Chris. Tristan kept us entertained with a comic series he called Cucumber Man. He even came up with a theme song. He started singing “I’m a cucumber man and I do what I can” during sound checks and it almost brought me to tears every time.
I think we ate our weight’s worth of servo sandwiches and learnt that European McDonald’s don’t do all day breakfast which was a bummer on our rock dog schedule.
The combination of being so sleep deprived, hungover, excited and wired made for some pretty funny and memorable moments. It was a really great experience and something we will look back on in awe for the rest of our lives.
In March this year you released Open Vault a compilation of 26 unreleased songs including studio material, early demos, live 4-track and live iPhone, covers and solo home demos recorded between 2016 and 2019; what inspired you to put these out into the world? Often bands are shy to share their demos. Did you have a process for choosing what was included?
MILES: I just like them. Aside from the studio-recorded stuff, to me, it sounds like Daniel Johnston met up with John Cale, got really hammered, then tried to make their own White Album on GarageBand only using the inbuilt mic on an old MacBook. Whether they were successful or not is another question. I also just wanted to put SOMETHING out as releases were all put on hold due to COVID.
It turns out some other people rather liked it and we have recently been approached by a German label that wants to release it as a double LP late in the year or early next. Danke Kamerad!
Your Left Bereft 7-inch has just come out also; how did the A-side title track come into being? Lyrically it seems to talk to the current frustrations with our society’s systems and the information we’re bombarded with from news etc. in our daily lives.
MILES: Well I feel things are a bit different now as these were all written pre-COVID, but still valid as it seems the new federal budget is a welfare package for the bosses of the country and the Liberal party is back on track making the poor suffer. It came about when we returned from our European tour. I made a point throughout the yomp to talk to as many people as possible about what was going on in their respective countries politically and socially. At the end of it all I was left with the impression that everyone felt in a similar way to myself about their own Governments and fracturing communities. ‘Left Bereft’ is an overly simplified rabble-rouser that people who maybe use English as a second or third language can understand and maybe feel a bit of solidarity. I like to imagine drunk students in France listening to it whilst wrestling on the kitchen table, which we witnessed in Rennes, but the soundtrack was ‘Constant Mongrel’.
Can you explain to us what the 7-inch B-side Australia is about?
MILES: It’s more or less in the same vein as ‘Left Bereft’ but more localised. I think only those familiar with Australian happenings would know what the hell I’m on about. To be honest, I think I was just in a fairly grumpy mood writing both of them. I love Australia and wouldn’t swap my passport for any, BUT saying that I think this country has been an absolute embarrassment in terms of turning into free-market capitalism’s wet dream. I would happily see many Liberal and National party politicians get life sentences in prison for crimes against humanity, the environment and the general erosion of 90% of the population’s best interest. Nepotism and corruption are rampant within the Liberal party but your average Aussie does not give a toss as it’s not reported in the major outlets as the news is dictated by the Liberal party, who is dictated by Mr Murdoch, who owns all of the major outlets, aaaaaaand Bunnings is still open. Instead of watching a horror movie tonight, just watch Sky News Australia on YouTube!
Australia is not the benevolent, all welcoming, sun-bleached, forward-thinking country that the media likes to portray. We may have had some of those attributes in the past, but sadly they have been slowly pulled from under us. Shame, as we have all of the ability and necessary attributes to sustain a far better standard of living for all people today and tomorrow.
Is it important for you to tell a story in your songs? They often have some kind of social commentary thematically.
MILES: No, I don’t think so. I don’t sit there and think “I need a story for this song” It just falls to what interests, amuses or bemuses me at the time. I have noticed something that does seem important to me, and that is to use words that have multiple meanings wherever possible so it can be adjusted by your own interpretation of the content.
LOU: Miles writes most of the lyrics and I don’t think he’s ever purposely trying to tell a story in the songs, but they usually become some sort of history or politics lesson. Which is cool, ‘cause learning is fun!
What’s the hardest thing The Shifters’ have ever had to do as a band?
MILES: Probably the Euro tour?? We are all pretty quiet and reserved people most of the time and that tour kicked the shit out of us. In many ways.
LOU: Definitely the Europe tour. We were all so sick. Except for Ryan. Lucky dude. That man has an iron immune system. When I came back I had bronchitis and felt like absolute death. I also looked about 10 years older. That’s what no sleep, high adrenaline and endless partying will do to you. We all had our grumpy moments and I think just being around each other in those bad times was pretty hard.
What’s coming up for The Shifters?
MILES: We have the double LP compilation to look out for. Hopefully, we can get together again soon as a band to write/record a new LP. We have not been able to get together since March as Melbourne has been under strict lockdown.
LOU: I just wanna see everyone! We haven’t jammed in months and I miss my dudes. Can’t wait to go to the pub, have a bunch of beers and reminisce. We were really keen to go back to France at some point this year but then life got cancelled because of COVID. Hopefully we can tour again at some point. At the moment we’re all just keen to see each other and write some new stuff! We are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully, we can meet soon.
What are you most excited about right now?
MILES: I’m unsure about using the word excited, but I’m very intrigued right now by the general collapse of the Nu Roman Empire. Electing Trump was a Rubicon moment, of sorts. Though I think they had their ‘Pax Romana’ a long time ago. The fall of the Western Roman Empire was a gradual decline in the upkeep of state administration and the inability to pay its troops holding the borders of a bloated and fracturing empire in a time of famine and crop failure. Landowners and senators slowly ‘left out the back door’ so to speak, and started hiring out-of-work soldiers to protect their own interests in volatile provinces left in a vacuum of post-Roman centralised authority. Thus, began sowing the seeds of European feudalism. Trump = Commodus. History can be screamingly interesting.
LOU: I’m excited to make money again! I haven’t had a job since June. I never thought I’d say that I miss the stress and pressure of a kitchen environment but I honestly do. I feel like I don’t have a purpose at the moment and I’m becoming too much of a hermit. I’ve become a full-blown gamer during lockdown and I’m getting a new PC soon. I guess that’s pretty exciting too!